Thursday, August 26, 2010

You, sir, are a dandyprat with unfortunate farting-crackers

Lots of people think slang is new, that it's only used by young people, or black people, or dodgy East End geezers who've necked a couple of Britneys down the rub-a-dub. But slang has been around forever and has been used by all sorts of people. Now, one of the very first slang dictionaries from way back in 1699 is about to reprinted. Here's more about this brilliant resource.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Disappearing dialect

You wouldn't know that I'm back from holiday and catching up on stuff that I missed, would you? Here's a Daily Telegraph article from early August about old dialect words that have dropped out of use. I think it's interesting to see what kinds of words drop out as other ones enter the vocabulary and why this happens.

What's in this year

The Oxford Dictionary of English has been updated and its latest lexical additions can be found here. Some of these words aren't exactly brand new - haters, chillax and paywall - but they're included for the first time. It's all good ammunition for work on language change at A2.

The Guardian have covered it here.

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph looks at a slightly different angle here, reporting on "failed words" that didn't make it into the dictionary. It covers the original story about the words that have made it in here.

Sheeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiit

Here's a job that will appeal to the many fans of The Wire that have sprouted up in south London since we forced all A level students to watch it in class. The US Drug Enforcement Agency has advertised for speakers of "Ebonics" to sign up as translators in an attempt to decipher the language of African American drug dealers. But don't worry. They're not assuming it's only African Americans who are selling drugs: they're also recruiting Ibo, Berber and Farsi speakers, as well as lots of Spanish speakers, obviously.

The Guardian article covering this story makes some interesting points about what this tells us about attitudes to African American speech:

Ebonics is described by some linguists as English incorporating the grammar of African languages, but as it also includes many words invented on the streets, it is dismissed by others as mere slang.

Nonetheless, the administration is confused enough to ask firms providing translation services to provide the nine Ebonics translators to cover an area from Washington DC to New Orleans and Miami and even the Caribbean.

The move is a contentious one. American officials have in the past denied that there is any such thing at Ebonics.

There's more on Ebonics here if you're interested. Meanwhile, I am busy writing my letter of resignation (this is becoming a habit) and sending an application to Baltimore. Aight?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Men are from Earth and so are women.

A new book by Cordelia Fine called Delusions of Gender takes on many of the same targets that Deborah Cameron's brilliant Myth of Mars and Venus demolished a couple of years ago.

For a while now, the argument that men and women are hard-wired from (or before) birth to be different has been gaining popular support, but many studies suggest that the differences between the sexes are not as pronounced as many might like to believe. And certainly, in terms of verbal abilities, gender seems to account for only a small proportion of difference. Here's a review of Fine's book in last week's Guardian and here's a nice bit about language and gender:

The latter example, on the issue of verbal skills, is particularly revealing, neuroscientists argue. Girls do begin to speak earlier than boys, by about a month on average, a fact that is seized upon by supporters of the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus school of intellectual differences.

However, this gap is really a tiny difference compared to the vast range of linguistic abilities that differentiate people, Robert Plomin, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, pointed out. His studies have found that a mere 3% of the variation in young children's verbal development is due to their gender.

"If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them. Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild," Plomin told the Observer.

LOLcats, apps and rickrolling: the language of technology

New technology has always been a major influence on the English language: new inventions spring up and words have to be found to name them. This article on the BBC Technology news site (thanks to Simon Lavery on the English Language List for the link) looks at some of the most recent developments in language - many caused by developments in communications technology - such as weird phenomena like rickrolling, LOLcats and apps.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Tidal waves of mindless Americanisms"

And following on from the mention of this in Alison Flood's article about attitudes to language change, here's a typically prescriptive perspective from the vile Daily Mail, laying the blame for the decline of our once great language squarely at the door of Johnny Yankie and his foul, colonial distortions of our beautiful tongue. And here's a second link to an earlier (and funnier) rant about American English.

A level results

Congratulations to my ex-students at SFX on your A level results. I hope you got what you wanted/needed to get to university and are happy with your results. I know some of you who have emailed me have done really well, and I'm chuffed for you (and the teachers who didn't desert you). And I hope anyone else reading this blog who isn't an SFX student got good results too and found material on here helpful.

Always complaining

Here's a link to a short article in The Guardian last week, which plugs the new British Library exhibition, Evolving English. (If you haven't already booked a visit, you really should.) The article takes a look at the ways in which there have always been complaints about language change, right back to many centuries ago, and how the current moans and groans about Americanisms, text language, PC and youth slang are just part of a well-established pattern.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Grammar incomprehension

In a sneaky attempt to build up traffic to the other blog I'm working on as part of my new job, here's a cross-posting. A week or two back, the research of Dr Ewa Dubrowska from Northumbria University was reported on in a couple of places, and since then there's been some discussion about what her research proves or doesn't prove. The gist of her work is that some people who have not gained higher level qualifications (gone to university, in other words) find it harder to understand some grammatical structures than those who have those qualifications.

While some might argue that this just proves that some people are smarter than others, it's not quite that simple. Pretty much everyone picks up grammar very quickly as a child, even though we are not taught it explicitly when we are young (or ever, in some cases). Some have argued that her research shows that we don't all have a common grammatical understanding: that the built-in grammar we are told is part of our genetic heritage by the nativist theorists such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker isn't as developed as we have been led to believe.

Others have argued that it raises no such doubts and all Dabrowska's research tells us is that some people are better at taking tests than others. Anyway, there's more here on the Teaching English Grammar in Schools blog, including a link to BBC i-player where you can hear a fairly clear introduction to the debate on the Material World programme broadcast last week (20 minutes into the programme).